Blogging Woolf, by Paula Maggio 8/26/07: “Catch a wave with Woolf,” which links to the Telegraph, 7/29/05: “Welcome to the new wave.” Surfing is taking Cornwall by storm—and it’s big business, too. Alex Wade travels to Newquay for “Europe’s largest lifestyle Festival.”
The Waves: A Surfing Story by Virginia Woolf
My father didn’t originally rent Talland House with the intention of surfing. He was a walker and covered virtually all of England over the course of the years, and he had been a famous mountaineer. He was done with the Alps and liked the West Country and thought the house and the beach would suit his family and its little children.
I’m not sure when he first had the idea to ride the waves. He was always reading so much and knew so many things, that he might have chanced on an account from the Hawaiian Islands, perhaps some missionary who watched the islanders riding waves. From the very first, according to the way the story is told in our family, he would stop on his walks at the different surf breaks and watch them for a long time, just thinking about the sea, taking out his pipe and considering a thought. It was a simple physics problem, really, and he liked to turn his mind to that sort of thing, as he had in climbing.
It was at the beginning of our second summer there, when I was just a little girl playing with a pail in the sand, that he found a local furniture maker, a fellow with a small shop who made the simple tables and chests and chairs you would see in the west, free from the ornate styles in London. They discussed his idea, and the man shaped a board over the course of a couple of weeks, with my father walking to his shop every day and watching his progress.
Leslie Stephen, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and conqueror of the Schreckhorn, was never a good surfer. He was a pioneer. He created the first board and rode the first waves, undergoing a somewhat torturous process of trial and error. The board was very long and extremely heavy, and it was a chore just to drag it down to the tide, and it would take a very long time for him to paddle out to the surf. I remember watching him, his long arm cradling the front of the board, his strong shoulders paddling as he continually shook the water out of his beard. He was in his mid-50s then, still in possession of the last of the lean strength from his climbing days. Sometimes he would just paddle, knowing he could never get his arms and shoulders up to the standard of strength for his runner’s legs. But he started at the very beginning, catching the broken surf and riding in, lying on his stomach with a smile on his face just like a child.
He thought about these first experiments over the course of his busy year. As early as January he sent the furniture maker specifications for three new boards, and they were ready when we arrived. He had a new, slightly smaller, but still quite massive board made for himself, shaped with greater care for moving more cleanly through the water. And he made much smaller boards for his elder children, Thoby and Vanessa, who were still quite small at the time. And this was the humble beginning of my brother’s surfing legend, which has only become more mythic over the many years that have passed since those early summer days.
My father’s goal in that second summer was to stand up on his new board. It was only after a couple of weeks that he was getting close, but the reduced weight and maneuverability of the new board helped him. In the meantime, Thoby had discovered his natural element and his passion. His board was smaller and faster, and within days, though he was just 9 years old, he was flying around the waves on his stomach and making turns, endlessly paddling in and out. Vanessa was a good sport as always and had her fun, but she was still very little. She would learn to be a barely competent surfer, going much further than my own feeble attempts of course, but her passion at the beach was the other game that my father discovered from some obscure source, volleyball, but that’s another story. At the end of that summer, on our last day before going home, Thoby stood up on his board. We were all on the beach watching him, my father tired from his own efforts in the early morning, and when Thoby waved at us in his moment of triumph we all cheered and waved back.
Now I think of the time that followed as the days when we lived just for those long weeks at midsummer. All of us had our different occupations, walking, surfing, conversation and reading, just playing on the beach. At first my father continued his pioneering effort to surf, but he was quickly surpassed by Thoby, and my father was increasingly burdened by his dictionary work over the next few years and his health broke down completely a couple of times. So he would rest and walk and on occasion he would paddle out on his board and just sit in the sun and watch his boy ride the waves.
Thoby became a young virtuoso, a prodigy of surfing. Our third year at St Ives was his second year of standing up on the board, and by the end of that summer he had mastered getting up and started making turns. He continued to spend all his time out on his board, turning brown in the sun. The following year, now turning 13, he began his growth and his skinny arms and shoulders seemed more powerful by the day. And now, with my father’s guidance, he started seeking out bigger waves. They put the board in a cart and would carry it miles to go to a good break. My father was well-accustomed to going out on small expeditions, having formerly done 100 mile walking tours over the course of a weekend, and now he and Thoby would bivouac under a cliff above a surf break, and Thoby would paddle out to big waves while my father would sit and smoke and read his book. My father was tired and distracted, always anxious about the dictionary and his writing and trying to solve his little math and physics problems, while never quite feeling a comfortable fit with his place in the world. But during the summer at the beach, he would slowly relax in the fine weather and he used to smile and tease us. I was jealous of his outings with Thoby and the pride he took in Thoby’s surfing, and the way that he and Thoby would talk about technical elements of riding the waves. But sometimes when we would sit together and watch Thoby surf, he would create stories that were for me alone, and he would tell me about books and writers and his early days, and he would extravagantly praise any little slip of writing I might do and give me a wink. I always thought that he was confiding in me during those moments, letting me into a secret, and I selfishly dreamed that I would win his love by my own immersion in books and writing, paddling as deep into the world of letters as Thoby did into the waves, and the part of life that was closest to his heart. But we all shared a bond of admiration for Thoby, and we knew we were witnesses to something extraordinary and precious, as he would amaze us each day by carving deeper turns on bigger and bigger waves, getting more comfortable each day, doing something that he seemed born to master.
The story of my family’s subsequent troubles is well known. My mother was always patient and amused by my father, and she enjoyed watching Thoby as much as any of us, although she was more nervous about a bad wipeout and didn’t like him going out when the surf got big. My father was always able to calm her and explain Thoby’s careful strength, and from the very beginning she knew that he would swim into the biggest wave in Cornwall and give his life in an instant to rescue one of his children. My mother was the ministering angel of St Ives and Kensington and everywhere else she went, and then suddenly she died. My father was already in a swift decline from overwork, and he became an old man overnight.
The road to peace and acceptance was long and hard for all of us, not just me and my father. Thoby went up to Cambridge. As I struggled to determine a place for myself in the world, I didn’t see Thoby very much, because when he wasn’t at Cambridge he was surfing. He became focused, obsessed, more of a risk taker. We were badly out of balance, and Thoby’s crutch was the endless pursuit of riding waves.
I thought I was beginning to find my way and then I was struck down by sorrow and despair again when my father died, some years later. But with my mother and father both gone, and just coming of age, my struggles slowly subsided and suddenly we children found ourselves grown and independent and living in a world of great promise. I began to write reviews and continued to serve my father’s literary master, but new ways of writing seemed to be opening new worlds for me. As I devoured books and watched my sister and our friends practice bold new styles of art, I would always find myself thinking of Thoby out on his surfboard, the passionate solitary practitioner of an artform that no one knew, that my clever family had forged organically from the collision of earth and sky and sea. I hoped that someday I would be able to capture something of that spirit in a wave of words.
Thoby continued to drive himself and he became eager for adventure. He wanted to get on a ship and go to Hawaii and talked endlessly about it, but we were worried that he would never return. We planned our own trip to Greece and enticed him with the prospect of meeting us by riding down through Albania on horseback. He agreed, but only on the condition that he would leave for Hawaii as soon as we returned. He had waves to conquer, and he expected that he might write a book about his journey and perhaps popularize surfing, just as my father had begun his own writing career by reading simple renditions of his mountain exploits at the Alpine Club. But on the way home from Greece Thoby caught the fever and died in the very prime of life. And the art of surfing has faded into the Cornwall mist, although Thoby always said that there were surfers in Hawaii, and perhaps the sport will be discovered some day.